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A little bit of your taste (in my mouth)

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The newly opened space is on a side-street off some of the biggest skyscrapers in New York, hosting a slew of law firms and random agencies, ranging from marketing to governmental. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, no incredibly bright sign trying to look appealing, but through the front window Phil Coulson can see it looks warm and homey inside.

There are small tables for two on one side of the room, no tablecloths, just clean dark wood gleaming with polish; the walls are decorated with random pictures, old newspaper clippings that Phil can't read from outside, but also paintings of landscapes that look painfully familiar and random pictures of what seems to be circus folk. The wallpaper underneath is paisley and somewhat horrifying, in an old-family-home kind of way, but Phil pays little attention to it as he drags his eyes to the other side of the room, the counter that takes up most of the length of the shop, glass displays on either side of the cash register. There are cakes, and cookies, and scones, and Phil realizes with some surprise that he hasn’t had breakfast yet when his stomach rumbles at the sight.

Most importantly, Phil wants coffee. If he has one addiction, it’s caffeine, and the coffee in the NSA offices is so terribly rank he has no choice but to nose around to find a viable source of espresso on a regular basis. He’s been to every coffee shop in a five-mile radius, knows them all, and his favorites know his order and call him Agent Coulson when he walks in. He’s been to Starbucks, to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, to Dunkin Donuts (to his great despair), to Peet’s, to any number of family-owned little coffee shops; hell, he’s been to McDonalds.

So Phil knows this one is new. It’s too close to the office for him not to have noticed it before, and it looks new, still hopeful that it will work out. It's not often that that happens, and Phil has seen too many nice little coffee shops close down in this area. People are too busy to notice and take the time to learn great coffee, preferring the mediocre quality and familiarity of their usual chains.

He opens the door, bell jingling over his head, and suddenly he feels like he just stepped back into the 60’s, the whole decor reminding him of evenings spent sitting on his grandfather’s knee, reading from decrepit fantasy books in front of a fire. It’s almost suffocating in how comforting it is, the smell of coffee and cinnamon and citrus weaving through the air, the low tones of Eric Clapton’s modern blues playing through a well-concealed hi-fi system and mingling with the muted conversation of the few people occupying the cozy tables. Phil feels the overwhelming urge to sit down and take his time.

Surprisingly enough, it’s a man in an apron stamped with the shop’s name that comes through the back door, a tray of croissants in his hand. He’s young - younger than Phil, anyway - and good-looking, with piercing blue eyes that look straight through him, flicking up and down rapidly until Phil feels thoroughly evaluated. The man smiles.

"Hi, welcome to Under the Big Top. How can I feed your habit?"

Phil blinks at the name, but the man is amiable enough, a faintly mocking twist to his smile, like he knows of Phil's relationship with the life-giving elixir that is coffee. Somehow Phil thinks it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to think he does.

There's a huge blackboard behind the register, filled with row upon row of tidy writing. Phil barely glances at it; he tends to order off-menu most of the time.

"A triple-shot latte, in the biggest take-away container you've got," he says evenly, watching the man's smile grow into a smug grin.

"Totally called that one," the man mutters to himself. Phil raises an eyebrow at him, but the guy doesn't elaborate; instead, he reaches for a tower of paper cups, taking one that makes Phil's other eyebrow rise to join its mate. It's enormous. The guy's shop might go far in this neighborhood if this is the size of the drinks it offers.

"Anything to go with it? Syrup? You look like a vanilla kind of guy." The mocking lilt is back in force. Phil expends some effort not smiling.

"Just plain, thanks."

"You sure? I could blow your mind, if you let me."

Hmmm. Cocky, isn't he? Phil is tempted to let him do his worst, but he's late for a meeting as it is and he just doesn't have the time to get into it like he wants to, for reasons he can't quite pin-point.

"Another time," he says, surprised to find he means it. The guy seems to sense it, too, because he merely nods and sets up the requested espresso shots with a dexterity that is impressive even to a seasoned coffee shop patron like Phil. The guy boils the milk, frothing it just right by the sound of the hiss in the metal container (no thermometer, another point in his favor), and then assembles the drink so fast and deftly that Phil can't help his grudging smile of appreciation.

"One triple-shot latte, here you go. That'll be $2.50."

Phil eyes the guy. "Seriously? You're not going to be meeting your overheads for long with prices like that."

"What are you, an accountant?" the guy says, amusement threading through his voice.

"I know enough to do the math."

"Yeah, didn't think so," the guy says cryptically. Phil wants to ask him what he means, so much that he bites it back out of a strange sense of dangerous proximity to something he shouldn't get too close to. "It's a starting week discount," the man adds after a moment, with the air of a confession.

That makes sense. Smart, too. Phil pays without arguing further, takes a sip while the guy fishes in the till for his change. And then stops what he's doing, what he's thinking, stops everything, because this coffee, it has just single-handedly trashed his entire coffee points system that he's been compiling ever since he started his job, going on twelve years ago. He closes his eyes as the taste hits his tongue, wonderfully hot but not enough to scald, just fucking right. There are notes of vanilla, cinnamon, something else that he can't quite put his finger on, but Jesus Christ, it is delicious.

He thinks he might have stopped breathing for a moment there, because when the guy clears his throat he sucks in a shocked inhale, thoroughly rattled like he hasn't been for years. The guy is standing there, hand outstretched with the change, a smugly pleased smirk curling his mouth in an interesting and slightly disturbing way.

"Don't worry," the guy says; seriously, no one should sound this smug about the effect he's having on Phil, "it takes everyone like that the first time. Just imagine what it'll be like when you let me make you one of my tailor-made specialities."

Phil actually can't even contemplate it. "Thanks," he says shortly, because he feels vulnerable in a way that is physically uncomfortable. The walls he maintains at all times, like they're his own version of religion, seem thinner than normal; it's unsettling and he wants none of it. "Have a nice day."

The guy's smile doesn't falter, but it turns thoughtful in a way that promises nothing good. "You too, Agent..."

Phil will not ask how the guy knows this. "Coulson," he says, just short of snapping.

"Agent Coulson, duly noted. Clint Barton," the guy tells him, offering a sturdy, strong hand that Phil tries not to pay too much attention to as he shakes it perfunctorily.

And then flees. He's not proud of it, but honestly, he's allowed to have an off day every now and again, and there's something about Barton that nudges him just that bit off-balance. He comforts himself with the thought that there's no way that Barton could possibly know that this is not normal Phil Coulson behavior -- for one, there's no one looking chastised and cowed anywhere near him. He doesn't look back when he walks out the door, though, because for all his bravado, he has a feeling Barton reads him a lot more clearly than anyone Phil's just met has any right to.


Clint opens the shop early, earlier than most places in the area, and closes later than most, too. It’s not that he doesn’t have anything better to do (although, to be fair, he doesn’t), but it’s a chance to collect the last few stragglers working late, and the early birds in impeccably pressed suits. He never asks Darcy to come in before 9 -- at least, not after the incident last time. He's still cleaning out chocolate syrup from under the coffee machine.

Pulling up the metal blinds, he looks out for a moment, blinking at the dusty morning light filtering through the tall buildings, making him feel small, insignificant in a way he likes, hidden away in the folds of the city, as far away from the lights of the circus and his past as possible.

It wasn’t really what he had planned in life, opening a coffee shop in the heart of the business neighborhood in New York, but it’s a welcome change. For once he’s stable, he has an actual apartment and bills to pay, and, after a week and a half of having been opened, he’s already got a few regulars, coming every day and raving about his coffee-making skills. He takes the compliments but he knows he owes it to his father, who patiently taught him all of his tricks and recipes before he died. Clint keeps the large, overflowing leather-bound recipes book in the kitchen, poring over it when the shop is quiet - mid-mornings and mid-afternoons can be terribly slow, and when he’s got the time, he’ll try new ways to make his father’s apple turnover even more special, or he’ll add a dash of hazelnut to his mocha. Clint came to the conclusion years ago that he thrives on improving everything he does and can do, an eternal perfectionist with no desire to ever see perfection.

He’s pouring himself a coffee while waiting for a potential first client, expecting Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s assistant, who’s been coming in at 6am sharp every day, rattling off the order for her and her boss’ very specific drink preferences; but instead, it’s Agent Coulson that walks through the door. Clint doesn’t forget names, and he doesn’t forget faces, either, but even if he’d wanted to forget Agent Coulson he wouldn't have been able to. From the moment Agent Coulson had walked in, in his understated suit and wearing a sour expression, Clint'd had an overwhelming urge to get the man to talk and loosen up. This morning he looks tired, dark circles under his eyes, suit looking almost limp over his frame, and Clint can't help the way he frowns.

“Agent Coulson.”

“You talked about a tailor-made drink last time. Go on, then.” The tone is clipped, almost angry.

“Seems to me you need sleep more than you need caffeine right now.”

Coulson’s jaw clenches and he looks away for a moment, to the quiet road outside. Clint wants to know everything Coulson is thinking about, and the thought startles him, making him blink at his coffee maker.

“Lucky for me, your job isn't to tell me what I need. Just make me some coffee, Mr. Barton.” Coulson stops, and their eyes meet; after a moment, Coulson looks almost apologetic, shoulders slumping the tiniest bit. “Please. I have a meeting I have to be at in ten minutes.”

Clint purses his lips. “Fine. But the least you could do is call me Clint when you're using me to get your fix.”

Agent Coulson makes a tired gesture that might mean whatever, as long as I get my coffee, or maybe something completely different, and it’s unnerving for Clint to not to be able to decipher him as easily as he normally can. He prides himself on the way he reads people, and how good a barista it makes him. He still gives it his best shot, mixing two shots of coffee with a splash of vanilla syrup, adds the smallest amount of hot dark chocolate for bitterness before filling the cup with water and a generous portion of whole milk. If the man falls asleep on his desk, Clint will deny everything. He tops the drink with hazelnut syrup and slides it over the counter, reaching down for an apple fritter; he drops it in a paper bag and leaves it next to the coffee.

“There you go.”

“I don’t need food.”

“No? Then why am I hearing your stomach rumble from over here?”

Coulson sighs, looking very close to rolling his eyes. “You’re kind of cocky.” To Clint, this admission feels like a slip, like something he wouldn’t have said if he wasn’t so obviously overworked. Clint grins.

“Ah, some would call it confidence. It sounds better.”

"By all means dress it up, if it helps you sleep at night."

Clint fights a smile at Coulson's testiness. For some reason, instead of ticked off it makes him want to reach over the counter and ruffle the man's hair (he would, too, if he wasn't afraid of getting shot for it -- Coulson looks like he’s at the end of his tether).

Coulson pays without asking how much, just over the amount that is on the board behind Clint's back, adjusted a week ago for post-opening week prices. Instead of collecting his change, Coulson drops it in the jar by the till, cup already lifted to his face, eyelids drooping a little when the smell of fresh coffee hits him. He looks like he could use a drip of the stuff. Clint watches him closely as he takes his first sip; a jolt of pleasure hits his stomach when Coulson pauses, then drains a third of the cup in one go. He looks reluctantly pleased with the taste, shooting Clint a grateful look before leaving without another word, shoulders stiffening again as soon as his foot hits the sidewalk outside the shop. Clint finds himself concerned, which is stupid; he's spent a grand total of ten minutes in the man's presence over the course of a couple of weeks.

Stupid or not, the feeling doesn't fade.


Phil would maintain that he doesn't know what draws him back to Under the Big Top again and again, but that would be a bald-faced lie. He does know; he only wishes he didn't. He wishes even more that it was only to do with the stupidly tasty coffee, and the heavenly pastry that Bart--Clint had slipped him last time. There's just something about the proprietor that sets off a strange resonance inside his chest, warming parts of him that he'd honestly forgotten were even there. In the weeks since that morning from hell when he'd made it home only to get changed and head out again, when he'd gone to Under the Big Top out of desperation for caffeine and something that made him feel at least fractionally human again, he's found himself going back again and again, under the flimsiest pretexts. Vexed with himself, he had tried returning to his usual haunts for a while, the nearby Coffee Bean and Peet's that topped his points list of all the coffee houses around the perimeter of his office. He'd lasted a grand total of four days (the last of which was made up of sheer stubbornness not to fold, and was one of the most miserable days of his existence) before he's pushing the familiar door open again, finding Clint in his usual spot behind the counter, emptying the dishwasher into neat rows of mugs over his machine.

Clint lifts his head at the sound of the bell, and honestly, Phil has got to be imagining the look in his eyes, because no one ought to look this relieved to see him when there are no bullets flying around. He resolutely refuses to consider why he would be imagining the look in question.

"Hey, Agent Coulson. It's been a while. You look better."

Phil doesn't feel better than last time, but he must have looked truly horrendous for Clint to mention it. He makes no reply, busying himself instead with evaluating any changes that have happened in the time since he was here last. The glass counters are filled with muffins and cupcakes today, which look so appetising that for the first time in forever Phil feels a craving so strong he doesn't think he can resist it.

Then he notices the bandage that's wrapped around Clint's right hand, over the palm and across the knuckles.

"What happened?" Phil blurts, immediately wishing he could take it back. It's none of his business, and Clint hasn't given any indication that he would welcome this kind of familiarity (if you didn't count the friendly greeting he always has for Phil, which is only good retail manners).

Clint's eyes flicker to his hand and away again, dismissive. "Nothing. Scalded myself with a bit of milk is all. It's already mostly healed, but you know, Food Prep Health Standards."

Phil stamps down on the overwhelming urge to take Clint's hand in his and check the damage for himself. Clint is a grown man -- he can take care of himself.

He doesn't even know the guy. This is an unsettling level of attachment he's skirting right there. Maybe he should try harder to stay away.

The girl that works in the shop - Darcy, if Phil remembers correctly - pops up from behind the glass cases, tossing her long, wavy hair back and smirking at her boss in a show of companionship that makes Phil’s stomach clench. He’s got all these colleagues and teammates that he trusts, but none he can call his friends, and watching Darcy grin up at Clint like this reminds him. It's odd; he's never had these kinds of thoughts before -- he's never felt the need, really. He wonders what prompts them now.

“He can be surprisingly clumsy for someone with such good aim.”

Phil blinks, taken by surprise by this scrap of unasked-for information, stowing it away in his mind before he even registers the process, on top of a little pile of random data about Clint that he's been collecting surreptitiously from the start. He’s gathered quite a few tidbits in the short time he's known him, but he puts the blame for it on his job, because that is what his job entails at all times.

“I am not clumsy. I’m just not much of a morning person. Please be so kind as to mind your own business, Darcy.”

Clint isn't looking at Phil, glaring defensively at Darcy instead, but there is no mistaking the slight flush to his cheeks. Phil decides he isn't touching that one with a ten-foot pole when Clint turns back to him, face still flaming -- for both their sakes.

"So. What will it be today?" Clint asks after a long moment of silence as Phil keeps staring at his hand and clenching his into fists in the pockets of his slacks, Jesus, he needs to pull himself together. He raises his head, shaking off the ridiculous, misplaced concern.

"Surprise me," he says, because hell, the last coffee Clint had made him had been pure magic, and he can trust the guy to do his job when he's obviously so good at it.

Clint gives him an approving smile and flicks out a large coffee cup, twirling it through his fingers like he could make it disappear into thin air if he wanted to. He sets up the shots -- both nozzles, what is that, a quadruple espresso? Damn -- and snags an empty paper cup, turning to press a few doses of a bunch of syrups inside. Phil can barely keep up; was that last one coconut? He grimaces. Not that he doesn't like it, but he's understandably concerned about coconut syrup in his coffee that he needs to drink, damn it.

Clint stops a hair's breadth before he tips the coffee shots inside, arching an eyebrow. "You're not allergic to anything, are you?" he asks, like he's hanging on Phil's answer, which, again, silly notion.

"Green tea and soy," Phil says automatically, watching as Clint nods and tips the coffee inside anyway. The milk is perfectly heated again, it seems, and Clint spoons a bit of froth on top that Phil looks at suspiciously, although he keeps his mouth shut. Clint presents the finished concoction with a flourish before, once again, reaching over to drop a cupcake into a paper bag and placing it next to the coffee. Phil won't ask how he knows to do that, but he wants to; oh, how he wants to.

He fishes for change, handing over a note when he can't find any and waving away the pile of coins Clint tries to give him. He picks up his coffee, steeling himself for the taste as Darcy watches with a strange, almost gleeful light in her eyes. He might trust Clint to not poison him, but trust only goes so far in the face of coconut.

Then he takes a sip, and fuck, fuck.

See, here's the thing about coconut. Phil's Gran came from a long line of Spaniards who adamantly used coconut in everything, disregarding any of the rules of common sense, and Phil has gotten used to the taste making normally palatable food too odd for him to enjoy. He loved his Gran, of course, and he could never refuse her when she tried to feed him up, but it's something he's understandably wary of.

But this, this, it should not be possible for it to be so good. There's something else mixed in with the coconut, hazelnut maybe, and it turns the taste less sweet and more nutty, binding beautifully with the bitterness of the coffee and the creamy flavor of the milk. It is, in short, the best coffee Phil has ever tasted.

Clint is watching him. It’s unnerving, especially because Phil isn’t sure what response is expected of him - in his job, it’s essential to know exactly what he’s supposed to do and say, and it’s easy, too, but this is not his job. Clint is not one of his superiors, nor is he one of his subordinates, and Phil has spent such a long time not having any kind of life outside of work that he doesn’t even know how to deal with this.

“You like it?”

Worst thing is, it’s like Clint gets it.

“It’s good. It’s really - good.”

The smile Clint gives him is blinding. Phil feels the world shifting beneath his feet.


Phil nods, shaken, eyes moving between Clint’s own and his bandaged hand, once again stomping hard on the desire to check on the burn himself. He’s the customer in a business Clint owns, there is nothing more to their relationship.

With this thought firmly in his head, Phil turns on his heels and leaves Under the Big Top, Darcy's cheerful "Bye, Agent Coulson!" ringing oddly in his ears.


Summer in New York is sticky in a way Clint isn’t used to. He’s traveled to some really hot places in the past, but the heat and pollution of the city is a new one for him, oppressive, making movements heavy and slow. He’s added iced drinks to his menu and they prove more popular than he ever thought they would, his customers finding relief from the temperatures wherever they can.

It’s mid-afternoon and the shop is deserted, the A/C on full blast as Clint watches the street outside the front window shimmer and blur with the heat, unable to focus on his copy of On The Road lying over his knee. He'd given in and sent Darcy home half an hour ago, when it was clear that everyone with any sense was sitting the heat out somewhere with working A/C.

Which is why, when Agent Coulson walks inside the shop, obviously shaking with cold, Clint’s alarms start blaring that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Coulson’s lips are a terrifying shade of blue; his skin looks waxy, swollen around his eyes, and Clint doesn’t wait a second to round the counter and walk to him, carefully reaching out to close a hand on his arm. Coulson is obviously trying to control the way his teeth are chattering.

“Come on, come sit down, my God, what happened to you?”

Coulson shakes his head, looking at the tabletop after he’s lowered himself carefully onto the chair, and it’s physically painful for Clint to pull away. He’s not going to ask further questions about why Coulson is in this state, but there is no way he is letting him walk back to his office like he’s fine.

“Coffee?” Coulson’s voice is raspy, the word coming out as a whisper. Clint nods, squeezing Coulson’s shoulder, wanting to put his palms on Coulson’s neck just to feel how cold he is, wanting to drag him to his nearby apartment, bury him in blankets and feed him soup until he looks human again.

But he can’t do that, it’s not his place. Coulson would never let him.

Instead, he makes coffee. This time without flourish, just good sturdy coffee with a splash of boiling-hot milk, and he brings the very full ceramic mug to Coulson, watches him wrap his hands around it.

“Are you hungry?”

Clint doesn’t seem able to overcome this urge to take care of Coulson - in a way, he doesn’t want to, because it’s so obvious that nobody else is doing it, not even Coulson himself. Clint has been alone for a long time, but he’s never let himself become so detached from his basic needs the way Coulson has. He'd bet that Coulson survives on microwaved poptarts, bad takeout and three hours of sleep a night at best.

“I - yes.” Despite Coulson’s hesitation, Clint smiles, quickly disappearing into the kitchen to find exactly what he’s looking for, tomato soup, made the day before to test on a few regular customers who like his savory treats. It’s not chicken, and it’s not the same as the one his mother used to make him when he was sick as a child, but it’ll do, and hopefully it'll warm Coulson up further.

He sets a bowl in the microwave and then shoots a look at the A/C, refusing to think about how sweat was making his shirt cling to his back by the time he'd made the walk from his apartment to the shop. He turns it off.

The microwave pings and he takes the soup out, checks it's hot enough and takes it outside where Coulson is hunching miserably into himself, face almost planted in his mug. Clint takes it out of his nerveless hands, ignoring Coulson's noise of complaint as he replaces it with the soup. Coulson eyes it warily, lowering his head to sniff at it.

"It's only tomato soup; just drink it, will you?" Clint tells him, vaguely exasperated with Coulson's mulishness.

Coulson frowns, but brings the mug to his face, takes a careful sip. His eyes close, and his mouth slackens a bit from its tight line. Clint watches, stupidly pleased, as Coulson drinks all of it, color improving with every mouthful.

"Do you need medicine? Advil? Antibiotics?"

Coulson stares at him, a strange look in his eyes. Clint stares back, waiting, unwilling to back down now. The silence stretches, while the look on Coulson's face transmutes from suspicion to caution to a kind of surprised wonder that, well, let's put it this way. If Clint wasn't sitting down, he would have had a close encounter with the floor. What is--is this guy for real? Is it really so strange to him that someone might be, Clint doesn't know, concerned when he staggers into someone's coffee shop looking like death warmed up?

"Coulson. Do you need anything."

Coulson shakes his head, face tight. Then he stops, and he nods, once. "Some Advil would be great," he croaks, looking embarrassed.

Clint goes to stand, when Coulson's hand curls around his forearm, warm now from the borrowed heat of the coffee and soup. "Call me Phil."

Clint stares for a moment before Phil looks away, down at the table again. Then he swallows dryly and goes to fetch the Advil from his desk in the back room, feeling like someone has just punched him in the gut.

Trying to make sense of Coulson - Phil - is way too hard in this heat. Maybe he just came to Under the Big Top for a coffee, expecting no reaction from Clint. Did he really think Clint wouldn’t care about seeing him in this state? Clenching his jaw, Clint nods to himself, putting the Advil in his pocket before going back to the front room. Instead of walking straight to Phil's side, he stalks decisively to the door and flips the sign around, showing the Closed side to the street. He sits in front of Phil, sliding the Advil over the tabletop.

“Do you have to go back to work?”

“I’m supposed to be going home. My partner wouldn't stop badgering me until I agreed to take the rest of the day off.”

"Will wonders never cease," Clint drawls, irrationally angry at Phil for not taking better care of himself, even thought he knows it's really not something that ought to concern him. "Will you go home?" he asks instead, because he has a feeling that he knows how Phil Coulson operates by now.

The guilty silence is answer enough. "Right, that's it. You're coming home with me."

Phil's head jerks up, glassy blue-grey eyes boring into his from much too close. "What?" Phil blurts, confusion so thick that it's obvious he's really not himself.

"You. My apartment. Come on. It's not far, just a couple blocks. You can take the sofa and sleep off whatever plague it is you've caught. Then we'll, I don't know, order a pizza or something, which you will eat, and then I'll drive you home if you insist."

Phil's jaw sets in a stubborn line. Clint can't decide if he wants to roll his eyes and ignore it in favour of forcing Phil to go home already, leave Phil to be miserable and pigheaded on his own. He does neither, merely waits, staring Phil down. After long enough that Clint is really tempted to carry out his original plan, Phil sighs and slumps against the table, the most unguarded Clint has ever seen him.

"All right," Phil rasps; his throat must be viciously sore. He lets his head hang down, stays in place as Clint hustles around him, wiping down counters, putting the cakes in the glass cabinets away in the cooler in the back, shuts off and cleans the coffee machine as quickly as he can. He runs a quick mop over the floor (he'll do a more thorough clean-up tomorrow, but this will do for now) and strides into the back office to deposit the day's turnover in the safe and fetch his keys. Phil gets up when Clint nudges him, walks to the door with his back as straight as he can make it, waits with one hand propped on the wall as Clint locks up and pulls down the metal blinds.

Clint turns him North, walks slower than normal so Phil can keep up, one hand hovering at the back of his elbow just shy of touching, in case Phil's legs let him down and he stumbles. There's a feverish heat coming off Phil's skin, even through the shirt and jacket that cover his arm. Clint would be lying if he said he wasn't worried. He uses the time getting to his place to run through all the groceries he has, the level of his tea supply, if there's any honey left over from the last time he felt like a cup. He thinks the answer to that is 'yes', and also 'you horrible sap, he is not your boyfriend'.

They reach the apartment without incident, and Phil braces himself against the door jamb until Clint unlocks the two locks and lets them in, running a quick eye over what he can see of the inside through the front door. It looks tidy enough, no old mugs crowding the table, no dirty clothes and kitchen towels hanging off the backs of chairs. It's actually a minor miracle that the place is this tidy; it's not his usual style, but he's not spent too much time in the apartment of late. He's been going in early and staying out later and later each night, hoping for... he doesn't really know what.

He moves aside to let Phil in, shuts the door behind them and leads him to the sofa; Phil sinks into it like his strings have been cut, letting his head drop back onto the cushions with a pained exhale. His eyes drift closed; Clint starts when he looks down at him. Phil looks, simply put, terrible. The circles under his eyes are so dark they look like bruises; his color has dropped again, leaving his face pale and sallow, drawn with exhaustion from the effort of walking here. There are beads of sweat rising over his forehead, his upper lip. Clint touches the back of his hand against Phil's skin, shocked at the heat that he can feel. Not good.

He leaves Phil there, makes a beeline for the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, takes out the paracetamol and aspirin and fills a glass of water from the tap. He carries his bounty back to the living room, nudges Phil and dishes out several pills into his hand. Phil doesn't even put up a token protest, that's how sick he must be, simply throws the pills into his mouth and washes them down with the water Clint offers; then his head falls back down, and several moments later his breathing evens out -- he's passed out cold. Clint pushes and tugs at him until he's horizontal, takes his shoes off and throws the blanket draping the back of the couch over his prone form.

Clint takes the armchair by Phil’s head and brings his feet up underneath him, curls up and just looks. He knows he wouldn’t do it if Phil was awake, but it feels like a perfect moment of sudden quiet, a stillness in time where Clint can take in little details about Phil he’s never had the chance to linger on before.

The worry lines on Phil’s forehead are so marked they’re still there, even in sleep, creases in his skin that Clint finds himself wanting to smooth out with his fingers; the curve of Phil’s mouth is soft, his lips slightly parted as he breathes evenly, and Clint is infinitely pleased with himself to see Phil’s got some color to his face again. He still wonders what exactly happened for Phil to develop a severe case of hypothermia, but he’s not going to ask. It’s not his place--no. Sooner or later that excuse is going to wear thin, and then he's just going to have to admit to himself that a) he cares about this man more than is probably wise, and b) the ever-present fear of rejection, even dulled after so many years, is raising its ugly head again, making him doubt himself, every word, every move. He knows, he knows Phil isn't him, and Clint isn't sixteen and stupid anymore, but rational arguments are not going to win the day when it comes to this.

Phil shifts in his sleep, and it startles Clint into moving himself, reluctantly leaving the armchair to go to the kitchen, doing the few dishes that need doing, trying to distract himself from Phil Coulson, sleeping on his couch. It feels surreal, like something that shouldn’t happen, something Phil clearly didn't want to happen, for some reason Clint has a hard time fathoming. It didn’t take long for Clint to get just how closed off Phil is, keeping everything tightly shuttered in his chest, and this show of vulnerability is such a first in whatever their relationship is evolving into that Clint isn’t quite sure what to do with it, with himself. Phil has invaded this quiet place inside Clint without even trying, most likely without even wanting to, but he’s settled there now, and Clint can’t dislodge him, can’t even remember a time when he wasn’t a little bit obsessed with Agent Phil Coulson. Maybe Darcy’s right -- he does have it bad.

Which would be fine; Clint is used to being the one infatuated with someone who isn't interested, except that day after day, meeting after meeting, Phil's unbending more and more around him. First by trusting Clint enough to make him a drink without demanding to know what's in it, then with his reactions, entirely unconcealed, to whatever Clint presents him with. And now, today, giving Clint free use of his given name, and Clint is trying hard not to give in to the giddy joy rising in his chest. Or dwell on the question of just how many people have been asked to address Phil by his first name.

He sighs, defeated yet curiously unconcerned about it. He knows he's letting himself get too involved. For the first time, though, there's someone coming towards him from the other side, too -- meeting him in the middle. Perhaps this time, he won't make a fool of himself by ignoring the warning signs and hoping for the best. This time, things might actually work out.


Phil wakes slowly, mind fuzzy and eyes bleary when he tries to open them to take in his surroundings. It makes a choking panic rise in his chest, that he can't snap to, can't clear his head enough to make note of where he is, if he's safe, if he needs to prepare to defend himself. He doesn't think he'll have to -- he's lying on something comfy, he's warm, there's something soft yet light covering him that even to his stuffed nose smells familiar. He can hear clattering from somewhere nearby, quiet and reassuring. He raises himself up on one elbow, takes a look around. He's in a small-ish living room, walls a faded magnolia white, bland yet somehow soothing. There's a bookshelf nearby, full of trashed-looking paperbacks, backs long broken into creases. Two inviting armchairs sit on the other side of a low coffee table made of a light shade of pine, surface covered with magazines and TV guides. The TV itself is state-of-the-art, taking over a solid half of the middle of the wall across from the sofa. Other than that, the room is mostly empty, curiously so -- like its owner doesn't spend more time in it than he must. The light coming from the small window is low, throwing long shadows across the off-white carpet, telling him what he needs to know about the time of day.

He pushes upright with some effort, head pounding and mouth dry, breathing laboured. He feels vile; he doesn't even know what he was doing, going into Under the Big Top, when really he should have stumbled his way home to collapse in peace. At least they'd arrested the wannabe bomber that had locked him and Steve into the meat cooler in the first place, which is a small blessing.

He coughs, throat aching like at any moment he's going to start spitting out flames. God, he wants to die. Maybe if he asks nicely enough, Clint might consider shooting him and ending his pain.

He's being inexcusably overdramatic, he knows, but damn, illness has always dragged the whining little boy out of him. He remembers well his mother's exasperation with him every time he felt sick, and made a nuisance of himself refusing to admit it.

He falls back on the couch, blinking sleepily at the ceiling when the sound of footsteps makes him look around. His eyes focus on Clint, shuffling into the room with a tea towel over his shoulder. He sits on one of the armchairs and stretches his legs, resting them on the coffee table. Phil notices idly that he’s barefoot.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like hell.”

“You look it.”

Phil snorts. “Charming.”

“Hey, I fed you my father’s special tomato soup and offered you my couch. You can’t say I’m not a gentleman.”

Phil can still faintly taste the spicy, comforting soup when he thinks about it hard enough. Under other circumstances, maybe he’d have kept on with the mocking, but as it is, he watches Clint cross his ankles together and murmurs, “That was some great soup. My compliments to your father.”

“He died a long time ago.”

Phil looks up at Clint’s face, which is still open, eyes clouded with grief. Phil is breathless for a second, realizing all of a sudden just how gorgeous Clint is, even with the sadness etched deeply into his features. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, it’s okay. As I said, it was a while ago. He taught me how to make coffee, back when I was still a kid. Speaking of - do you want some?”

Phil sighs with relief at the idea. He guesses it’s not going to be as spectacular as the coffee Clint makes in the shop, but he’s more than willing to try it. “Yes. Please.”

“Coming right up.”

Clint leaves the living room again, and Phil closes his eyes, listens to the sounds coming from the kitchen, hissing and shuffling and some banging, until the smell of coffee starts drifting through the air. Fortified, he feels human enough to sit up and watch Clint step back into the room with a tray and two steaming mugs on it. He looks so comfortably domestic like this, legs stuffed in threadbare jeans and a t-shirt stretched across his broad shoulders, still barefoot, hair a little ruffled from when he must have changed after Phil passed out. The sight tugs at something inside him, making liquid contentment pour through his veins. He realises with a bit of a shock that he could really, really get used to this.

Clint pads over to the table, setting the tray down and moving one of the mugs in front of Phil. It's coffee with milk, nothing fancy, but it's hot when Phil picks up the mug and lifts it to his face, enjoying the way the steam makes it a little easier to breathe. His eyes are still watering from what promises to be a debilitating sinus inflammation, but he takes a sip anyway.

Yes, it is missing the dressing-up that Clint gives it at the shop, but good lord, that just strips it down to the basics, and Phil can't get enough of the sweet, nutty taste of it, more delicious than he could ever make it, no matter how much embellishment he uses.

He drinks half the mug before he looks up, straight into Clint's soft eyes fixed on him. He's smiling a little, mug cradled between his palms close to his face, stretched out in the same armchair as earlier, long, long legs sprawled out and crossed at his ankles again. It's--well. Phil feels a clench in his stomach like, wow, it's been so long since he's wanted someone this much. When the hell had that happened?

"You probably hear this all the time, but god, Clint, this coffee."

Clint's eyes darken a little; Phil wonders at that, until it hits him that this is the first time he's said Clint's name out loud. Could it really be affecting Clint like this? Okay, yes, Phil is not an idiot, but he still has trouble believing that someone like Clint could want someone as ordinary and boring as himself.

"Thanks," Clint says, mercifully derailing Phil's maudlin thoughts (there's a reason he hates and distrusts getting sick so much -- it's hell on his emotional balance). "It's my Dad's family's secret recipe. When I decided to--leave, I guess, my aunt gave me her blessing to use it for the shop, as long as I never told it to anyone who wasn't family."

Phil debates, but Clint's tone is as open as can be, and there's no effort to brush the topic off. And if he's honest, he wants to know as much about Clint as Clint will tell him.

"Leave?" he asks mildly, leaving it open to take up or ignore as Clint likes.

Clint watches him for a long moment, looking like he's pondering the same thoughts as Phil. "Yeah," he says at last, settling back further into the armchair. "My family is pretty big, and there is a family business that we're mostly expected to join from the start. Have you heard of the Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders?"

Phil shakes his head. Not really his area of expertise. Clint looks a mixture of disappointed and relieved, which is... interesting.

"Well, Carson is my mother's maiden name. Pretty much the whole of the Carsons and the Bartons are involved in the running of it. My mother and father kind of grew up together, ended up falling in love when they were old enough to know what it meant. Anyway, I started helping out when I was five; by the time I was eight my uncle Morgan started teaching me archery. I worked with them until I turned eighteen. After that... After that I decided to leave the Carnival. I'm one of only three people to ever walk away; my Mom almost had a fit. It was the right thing for me, though, and my aunt Johanna, my Dad's sister, she was very supportive. She's the one who told me to stick to the only other thing I know. So that's how I started the coffee shop."

Phil listens thoughtfully, to Clint's tone and body language as much as the words. He can see just as clearly as if Clint had said so out loud, how much Clint loves his family, and misses them. But he can also see how content Clint is with his choice, at peace.

He can also tell that something pretty important must have happened to prompt Clint to make that choice. He won't ask, though; it would be far too invasive to pry about something so personal.

Maybe one day Clint will tell him himself.

"That explains so much," he says in the end, because it does. The corner of Clint's mouth quirks, a challenge, like he's saying 'You've no idea'. If Phil was feeling sharper, he'd probably delve deeper into that dare; but his mind is slow and dulled from the cold, and he doesn't think he has the wiles to pull it off, not with someone as slick and canny as Clint is turning out to be.

"What about you, Agent Coulson?" Clint asks after a moment of watching him shrewdly; probably seeing Phil's thoughts as they unfold sluggishly behind his eyes. "What prompted the men-in-black vocation?"

Phil drinks the rest of his coffee as a stalling device, so he can pull his wits together. Tell the truth or fib? Nothing particularly classified about the truth, only the specifics of it.

"I got recruited out of the Marines," he admits in the end, shrugging. "We had to take aptitude tests. About a week after I completed mine, I got a visit from Program Director Fury. Let's just say that he made me an offer I couldn't refuse," he adds with a self-depreciating smile. While Fury is a hardass bastard that takes enjoyment in pushing his agents to the limits, it's also a challenging, interesting job, even if it comes with chronic undersleeping. It's as good a choice as any and better than most.

Clint's eyes are considering where they rest on his face; he seems appeased by what information Phil can disclose. "You enjoy it," he says. It's not a question.

"I do. Keeps me on my toes. Makes me feel useful. And I'm good at it." Also not a question. Phil knows all these things to be facts, doesn't shy away from acknowledging them.

Clint nods, eyes growing heavy for no reason that Phil can discern. He drains his mug, bends almost double to pop it back on the tray without any apparent effort. Phil thinks of his abdomen contracting, muscles rippling with perfect control, and feels his mouth grow dry despite the coffee.

"All right," Clint says, getting up gracefully and stretching like an overgrown jungle cat. Phil tries not to watch the long, taut line of his body with hungry eyes, and mostly fails. "I promised you a pizza, if I remember rightly. What do you like on yours?"

It takes Phil a moment to switch speeds. Damn it, he hates the way his brain slows down when he's feeling under the weather. "Just ham and mushrooms. And extra cheese."

"Right you are," Clint says, rooting inside the pocket of his jeans for his mobile phone. Phil's eyes follow the movement of his hand. He swallows, hard.

Clint unearths his phone with a grunt of triumph that shouldn't be so endearing, and dials from memory. Phil wonders how often Clint must go through this routine, home-pizza-TV-bed, and immediately wishes he hadn't. Thinking about Clint, alone in this apartment but for the voices on the screen, night after night, makes something painful squeeze his gut.

Of course, he hasn't the slightest evidence that this is what happens. Maybe Clint is in the habit of frequenting bars and clubs; maybe he doesn't spend too many nights in this place at all. Strangely enough, that thought doesn't make him feel happier.

Clint orders for them, adding his own pepperoni pizza to Phil's order, and hangs up with a satisfied hum. "Should be here in a bit. Now then. Are you feeling up to a shower? There's hot water, and we're pretty much of a size, you can borrow a t-shirt and pants if you want. It'll make you feel better."

Thing is, it would. Phil's been thinking longingly of his own shower ever since he got out of that cooler this morning. He accepts gratefully, and Clint waves him over to the bathroom, at the end of a short corridor.

"I'll leave some clothes out in the bedroom for you to change into, just through here." Then he hands Phil a clean, neatly folded towel, and leaves him to it.

Phil closes the bathroom door behind himself, shucks his jacket, tugs off his tie and shirt gratefully while in the living room the TV clicks on, the muffled yet familiar buzz of a tattoo machine carrying through the door. Hmmm. Phil files that away for later investigation, kicks out of his slacks and drapes them carelessly over the rest of the clothes -- they're going to need to be dry-cleaned anyway. Boxer-briefs and socks follow, stuffed into the pockets of his slacks for safe-keeping. He turns on the shower to near-scalding and steps inside the surprisingly roomy cabin, dragging the flimsy door shut. The water soaks him quickly; he can practically feel it chasing away the lingering chill. It feels heavenly on his skin, and he tilts his head into it, lets it drench his hair, warm up his head as well. Once he's toasty, he looks around for something to wash with. His eyes land on the row of shower gels and hair products, lined up neatly in a metal nest on the wall by the shower head. He picks up the shampoo, surprised to find it smelling like something fruity and sweet rather than the generic masculine scent. It makes something warm and fond curl inside his chest and purr. He smiles, and pours out a handful.

He washes slowly and thoroughly, smile widening when he sees the hair conditioner (the same brand as the shampoo), the shower gel that smells like coconut and lime. The mingling scents make him feel calm, relaxed, pampered, if such a word could be applied to taking a shower in the apartment of someone he's only just getting to know. He shuts off his mind, lets himself just enjoy it.

He turns off the taps when the water starts to cool, emerges into the steam-filled room and dries quickly. The towel is just rough enough to feel good on his pinked skin; he scrubs at his hair before he winds it around his waist and tugs the door open, the air much more pleasant on his clean skin than before. He's about to turn right into the bedroom that Clint had indicated when there's a noise at the mouth of the corridor, a sharp inhale. He looks up to see Clint frozen in place, the tray with the empty mugs in his hands, staring at Phil like he's never seen a man mostly naked before. To his consternation, Phil feels his face heat in direct contradiction to the orders he's sending his bloodstream. He's not ashamed of his body; he knows he looks good, works out enough when he's not chasing suspects all over the place, keeps as fit as his active agent status requires. Still, the way Clint is practically eating him up with his eyes, he feels a strange and conflicting urge to duck into the room -- or to walk over there, make Clint dump the tray to the floor and pin him to the wall.

The doorbell decides for him; it rings shrilly, making both of them jump. Clint is flushing too, now, just as brightly as Phil; he scuttles into the kitchen, presumably to get rid of the tray. Phil takes the reprieve and steps sideways inside the bedroom, wondering with a mixture of lust and embarrassment just what might have happened if the doorbell hadn't intervened.

There's a tidy pile of clothes on the bed, a t-shirt, a pair of training pants, a warm hoodie that's soft to the touch, probably in deference to his cold. There is also a pair of boxers that Phil is uncomfortably aroused just to see, let alone pull on. He does, though, tries not to think too hard about wearing Clint's underwear -- mostly because his self-control only stretches so far, legendary or not. He shuffles into the pants, an inch or so short at the ankles, which is hardly an issue; the t-shirt fits him just right, a touch loose in the shoulders, which just highlights exactly what Clint's shoulders must look like under his clothes. Phil berates himself as he pulls the hoodie over his head; it's wonderfully big, feels like being enveloped in a fluffy hug. Phil's man enough (and tired enough) to admit that he enjoys it rather a lot.

He throws the towel over the back of a chair in the corner of the room, smaller than the living space yet cozy, warm, the soft blue of the walls bringing out the double bed's comfortable-looking covers and pillows. Phil spares it all barely a look, off-balance as he is about being in Clint's space, even though Clint's made it clear he's allowed; and then he walks away, because he knows if he doesn’t, he risks burying his face in the pillows and losing himself in Clint’s scent, all sleep-soft and sweet. He feels refreshed by the shower, even though he’s still sniffling and his head is still full of cotton wool, but he feels definitely ready to brave some food, now, and falling asleep on Clint’s bed doesn’t feel like the right way to thank him for everything he’s done.

He pads into the living room barefoot to find Clint on the couch, legs spread out and looking loose and relaxed, pizza box opened on the coffee table in front of him. He shuffles around a little to allow Phil to sit next to him, cheeks slightly flushed as his eyes flick up and down Phil’s body, either assessing how he looks in these clothes or just remembering what’s underneath. Phil’s not certain which he wants more.

“Feeling better?”

“Much. Thanks.”

“It’s okay. You need to eat.”

“Were you a nurse, in the circus?”

Clint smirks, leaning forward to grab a slice of pizza. He talks around his mouthful, a lack of proper manners that makes Phil smile more than anything else. His mother would have been so disappointed. “No. We did get random injuries, tended to them ourselves. I’m just guessing you haven’t eaten anything in at least a day.”

“I had a bagel for breakfast.”

“Well, that sounds healthy.”

“Says the man who owns a coffee shop.”

“Hey, at least I eat three times a day.”

Phil smiles, comfortable in the clothes he’s wearing and the easy flow of the conversation. As he eats next to Clint, they talk about random movies (Clint likes Bruce Willis films, he’s clearly embarrassed to admit) and TV shows (Phil admits that Celebrity Rehab is terribly engrossing, and Clint laughs until he wheezes), easy conversation, no need for heavy details about their pasts or their current lives. Once again it hits Phil, the way Clint gets him, gets it, understands that the job is incredibly important, and yet not something Phil can talk about openly. He doesn’t seem to resent that, unlike every other person to have shown interest in Phil in the past.

When they’re finished with their pizzas (Phil’s was nothing special, but good enough to eat at a rapid pace; he’d been starving), they settle in front of the TV, conversation falling into comments about the documentary on the Arctic they’re watching.

“Seriously, the noise penguins make, I don’t understand it. It’s a mix between a wail and a really aggressive truck driver.”

Phil closes his mouth as he realizes Clint is not looking at the TV at all, instead staring at the side of his face. He turns his head, looking back with a question in his eyes, but Clint speaks up before Phil can actually ask anything.

“Can I - I want to kiss you.”

If he answers, Phil will stammer like a blushing schoolgirl, and fuck's sakes, he’s not. He’s a grown man, he’s fucking forty-one years old and an NSA agent, he can take this kind of thing and roll with it. He almost wants to tease Clint for what he just said, but it’s so careful and respectful that Phil can’t. Instead, he leans close, frames Clint’s cheek with his hand.

This isn’t something he should want. The problem isn’t Clint, or gender, or any fucked-up idea of the kind. Phil works better alone, that’s all. Relationships always end with resentment and anger and bitterness, and Phil made the decision to stay away from all of that a long time ago. It’s easier for him, for his job. He doesn’t have to be afraid about a slip-up, or someone discovering his loved ones and threatening them. Being scared for his own life is okay; for someone else’s, less so.

And yet, when Clint moves in and presses his lips to his in a surprisingly tender way, Phil doesn’t pull away. On the contrary, he slides closer, deepens the kiss right away, tendrils of lust curling around his insides and making him hungry, suddenly desperate for intimacy. Clint groans, opens his mouth under Phil’s, takes and gives back just as hard, one of his hands under the hoodie, the other curled around Phil’s neck, keeping him right where he is.

And fuck, it’s hot, Clint’s palm flat against Phil’s stomach, between shirt and hoodie, Phil’s fingers skimming the waistband of Clint’s jeans. The kiss turns messy, shared breaths and groans and lips bitten and sucked, making Phil’s heavy head better and worse at the same time. He can’t stop, and apparently, neither can Clint, the two of them awkwardly pressed against each other as they go on, growing more desperate by the second.

When Clint pulls away, he rests his forehead against Phil’s, panting heavily right against Phil’s lips. And then he lets out a strangled chuckle, mouth curling into a smile that makes Phil wonder whether he should punch him or laugh with him. Right now, Phil can't think, can barely remember his own name.

“Do you want to stay tonight?” It’s a hopeful whisper, and Phil wants to say yes, yes, so much yes, but he brushes his thumb along Clint’s cheekbone and pulls away enough to be able to look into his eyes.

“I shouldn’t. I mean - I have a physical early tomorrow morning.”

“I wake up at five every day, Phil.”

Clint’s voice is raspy, sounding used, positively wrecked, and the way Phil’s name rolls off his tongue is filthy, promising so much that Phil can’t demand from him right now.

“I’m sick.”

Clint pulls back, as if he'd completely forgotten about Phil’s bout of hypothermia, even though it's the only reason they're here right now. He looks sorry, almost angry with himself, and Phil wants to backtrack.

“Not that I don’t--”

“No, God, no, you’re right, you need to rest. I’ll drive you back, if you want.”

“My car is parked close to your shop. I’ll drive home.”

“Are you sure you can?”

Phil smiles, letting his hand drop from where it was cupping Clint’s jaw.

“I’ve driven while in a worse state, believe me.”

It feels like ages since they’ve kissed, not the mere minute that has passed. Clint’s lips are still swollen red, though, a reminder of what just happened, and Phil can't help the way he brushes a thumb across Clint’s bottom lip, eyes drawn to it.

“I should go.”

“We can just sleep, you know.”

“I need some clean clothes. It’s just - I really should go.”

Clint sighs, but nods, pulling away reluctantly. He collects the pizza boxes, and Phil tries not to look at the way his shirt is riding up at his back, showing a sliver of skin.

“Let me walk you back to your car? I don’t want you to pass out on the way.”

Phil smiles. “Yeah, sure.”


Darcy is watching him. Clint tries not to fidget, but he can feel her eyes boring into the middle of his back where he's setting up today's trays of muffins. He avoids her gaze, fusses around with the displays, checks the levels of coffee grounds, looks at the door, then hustles through the flying doors and into the back, where the bakery is set up. The counters are dusty with flour, bowls of frosting standing by waiting for the batch of cupcakes in the ovens. Clint feels antsy, skittish, like his skin is too tight; he can't stay still. It's been three days since that night, since he'd first felt Phil's lips on his, Phil's hands on his face, the feverish heat of Phil's body under his palms.

Feverish. Right. He feels like the worst kind of asshole, jumping a guy who was sick, whose defences were lowered, whose reaction time was slowed; he'd seen it and ignored it, rolled right past the point where any decent guy would have stopped and pulled back, not pushed when Phil was obviously less than in control of himself.

And Phil hasn't come by. Of course he hasn't. He probably doesn't want to see Clint again, not after Clint had practically mounted him on the sofa. Jesus.

He decides that, to hell with it, it's still early enough to make some scones for tea in the afternoon. Traffic has picked up of late, and the shop is almost always full by four o'clock, business types from the dozens of law firms and government agencies occupying the district, out for a much-needed coffee break, and arty types from farther away that had started to gravitate to the shop in the past several weeks. He mixes up the ingredients and takes an inordinate amount of satisfaction in pummelling the dough to within an inch of its life, using it to release all the frustration that has been building in his shoulders with every day that Phil hadn't shown, every minute more that he's had to ponder his terrible choices.

Eventually he has to stop, dough thoroughly beaten into submission, fine sweat covering his forehead and trickling down the back of his neck. It's still much hotter than it ought to be for this time of year, and the A/C does nothing to beat back the wall of heat battering the shop from the outside in. Not to mention the miasma of simmering air rising from the ovens; all in all, the baking space is, indeed, baking.

He puts the dough away to rise, whittles away another half hour frosting the waiting cupcakes, but eventually he has to walk out into the shop again, where Darcy is lying in wait.

He's watched her get more and more curious as the days go by, and today she is practically vibrating with impatience. Still, instead of laying into him like he expects, she merely hands him a tall paper cup of coffee, still hot from when she must have poured it when he started moving the cupcakes from the tray to the glass displays.

He smiles gratefully, even if he's still understandably wary. With good cause, it seems -- he takes a sip, and the taste of coconut, hazelnut and vanilla hits his tongue, together with the mule kick of the ridiculous number of espresso shots in the cup. He barely stops himself from choking, though he can't help his flinch. He shoots Darcy a deeply betrayed look.

"I knew it," she crows, and Clint winces at the volume as well as the topic. "You never fix anyone else custom-made coffees; and really, did you think you were being subtle? 'The Agent'? Really? That's what you're calling this? Don't try to deny it, it's right there on the board. Are you going to tell me what's going on already?"

Clint glares at her stubbornly. He's not giving in to underhanded extortion.

Darcy looks gleeful. "Do you have a little crush, Clint?"

Clint can't actually help it -- he can feel the heat rising up his neck and flooding his face. Fuck.

Darcy looks thoughtful all of a sudden, which is actually worse. "Seriously, Clint. Is something wrong? You've been acting really strange lately."

Clint sighs, fingers clenching on his cup before he forces them to relax. "Nothing's wrong," he says on a sigh. "I'm just overthinking something. It's nothing, really."

Darcy crosses her arms over her ample chest and leans a hip against the counter. "Pull the other one," she drawls, raising both eyebrows. Clint sags under that look.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Darcy asks, a lot more subdued than a moment ago.

The thing is, Clint really does, because the space in his head is teeming with a million thoughts, a million doubts. He just doesn't know how. Darcy tucks a curl behind her ear, leaning closer encouragingly. And Clint knows, he does, that talking to her will help him sort things out in his mind. So he swallows his natural reluctance and starts talking -- not the details, but he blocks it out enough for her to get the drift. She listens, completely non-judgemental, which is such a comfort, and doesn't ask any questions until he's done. Then she's silent for a long moment, chewing on her plump bottom lip.

"Maybe he's really, really busy? Sounds like he's pretty high up the ladder. He might not even be in the country."

Clint hasn't really thought about that; the vise that's been strangling his breathing ever since the morning after starts to loosen slightly. That is actually a valid argument. Because he and Phil never even exchanged phone numbers, or emails, or any way to stay in touch, which in retrospect is just plain stupid -- but in their defence, they'd been plenty distracted.

Darcy, appeased, gets back to work tidying up the empties from the tables and seeing to the two suits that come in for, yes, 'The Agent'. Clint had known he was on to something from Phil's reaction, but he'd had no idea just how popular the drink would prove, despite the mix of flavors. Even Pepper Potts had ordered two, looking intrigued when she'd first seen it on the menu. Clint can only wonder what Tony Stark made of it.

The bell above the door jangles then, and his head snaps up. But it's only a really tall blond guy, with a piercing pair of pale blue eyes that peek out from behind truly ridiculous eyelashes. Clint is somewhat of an expert when it comes to recognising agility and fighting ability, and this guy is definitely a trained professional. His chest alone would, under normal circumstances, make Clint look twice -- thrice, four times, even, because it is vast. The man looks like he was manufactured by the kind of mad scientist who appreciates his/her creations looking like Greek demi-gods.

He comes to the counter, eyes running over both Clint and Darcy, carefully evaluating even though his expression is bland. Then, apparently assured that the two of them aren't an immediate threat, his gaze migrates to the board on the wall behind them. Clint sees the man's eyes widen after a moment, clearly surprised before his mouth twitches.

"Hello," he says at last. There is silence; when Clint looks, Darcy is licking her lips, eyes fixed on said chest. He kicks her ankle. She throws him a dirty look, then turns back with quite the filthy smirk on that mouth of hers.

"Hi," she drawls, eyes moving up and down his body like she's devouring it -- or would certainly like to. "Welcome to Under the Big Top. You're new, aren't you? --I mean, you haven't come in before, right? I would have remembered."

The guy smiles, and okay, yes, Clint will admit that he wouldn't mind getting to know him better, too. Seriously, he is gorgeous.

Then he thinks of Phil, and feels like a prick all over again.

"You're right, this is the first time I've been able to come in. I've heard a lot of good things about you, though," the guy tells Darcy, earnest and amiable and is he for real?

Darcy's eyes brighten and she preens a little, even though it's not actually her shop. "Oh, yes? Satisfied customers, yay!"

The guy's eyes crinkle when he smiles back at her, even wider than before.

"What can we get you?" Clint cuts in, because at this rate no one is getting any drinks ordered or made.

The guy looks over at him, and Clint can practically feel the scrutiny in his gaze. O-kay then.

"I would like one of 'The Agent', please. In fact, make that two," he says, checking his watch.

Darcy throws Clint a sly look before ringing it up. Clint busies himself with making the drinks, a bittersweet pang in his chest.

The door jangles again when it opens, but Clint is pouring in the milk and doesn't look up right away, determined not to repeat the accident from the last time he made that mistake. He fills the cups almost to the top, spoons froth to the brim and fits the caps over them. He pops two cardboard holders out and threads the cups through. Only then does he raise his head.

Phil is standing less than two steps away. Clint can see him clearly over the coffee machine; they're both tall enough that it comes to just under Phil's shoulders. He looks tired, drawn, but much better than the last time he came in -- not the last time Clint actually saw him, though, because nothing has topped that yet.

"Hi," Clint breathes, and promptly flushes, god, he sounds like a schoolboy with a crush.

"Hello, Clint," Phil says; how is it possible that Clint has missed his voice without knowing it?

They stare at each other, until there's a pointed throat-clearing to his right and he tears his eyes away from Phil's face just in time to catch the full force of Darcy's arch look. He feels abruptly mortified.

He clears his own throat, handing over the coffees and not looking back at Phil, because Jesus, he is an idiot.

The guy at the till has this curl to his mouth, amused and knowing. Clint feels an urge to go check on the dough for the scones right this instant.

"I ordered for you, Phil, I hope you don't mind," the guy says now, and oh, hang on a minute.

"Thanks," Phil says dryly, a rueful look in his eyes. The guy looks amused.

"So you two work together?" Darcy wants to know, which saves Clint from having to ask himself.

Phil nods, waving a hand at the guy. "Steve Rogers, my partner. Steve, this is Clint Barton and Darcy Lewis."

"So pleased to meet you," Darcy purrs, offering him her hand and smiling invitingly. Rogers actually flushes at that, the tips of his ears pinking. He takes her hand, shaking it and holding on a little longer than strictly polite. Clint sends Phil an amused look; Phil returns it, lips twitching. Clint thinks the awkwardness from earlier dissipates a little -- until the thought registers, and Clint feels it all over again. He can't ask why Phil hasn't come by; Phil probably can't tell him anyway (if he has, indeed, been away for work. Clint hopes rather a lot that that is the case).

"You look better," he says instead, biting at his lip before asking, "Has your cold gone?"

Phil nods a couple of times, looking away. Clint's heart sinks. He was right; Phil's obviously regretting what happened.

"It has, thanks," Phil says, eyes pointed down at the coffee cup in his hands and decidedly not at Clint. Clint is surprised by how much this pains him, but he tries his best not to let it show, even if Darcy is way too focused on Steve to notice. The awkwardness is back full force, and Clint suddenly wants them to leave, wants to be able to go back to the kitchen and bake some scones or knead more dough into submission.

“Phil, we need to get going,” Steve says, his voice soft. “The coffee’s great, by the way.”

“Yeah--yeah. Let’s get back to the office.”

Clint feels his stomach bottom out. He tries to reason with himself - Phil isn’t alone, Steve is obviously younger than him, possibly even a rookie, and Clint has no idea about rules in the NSA but he knows all too well about DADT and how deeply it has marked so many men and women. Even repealed, old habits die hard.

So maybe that's what it is.

And maybe Phil's just had time to sleep on what happened between the two of them, and this is it. Clint should have known, should have prepared himself for the eventuality; but he hadn't, he'd been recklessly hopeful, and now it hurts. He just wants to be able to talk to Phil, in private, sober and healthy.

“Well, thank you for your custom, gentlemen.” It comes out dry, level, nothing like what he feels inside. He doesn’t know what else to say, feels awkward, stupid. Darcy throws him a curious look, but he refuses to acknowledge her, swiping at the coffee machine instead.

“Bye, Clint,” Phil says in a low voice, as if he’s regretting having to leave, and Clint feels the urge to punch something again. Darcy turns to him when both Phil and Steve have gone, eyes flashing.

“What was that about?”

“He’s the one that acted like nothing happened, Darcy.”

“Oh, wow, last time I checked you were thirty-four, not fourteen.”

“I’m not going to put him on the spot in front of his partner!”

Darcy sighs, but deflates a little, looking away at the front window, like she’s hoping to see Steve walk back in and sweep her off her feet there and then.

“Fair enough. You should talk to him, though.”

“I know. Are you going to ask Steve out?” Clint goes all out on this one, hoping Darcy will just follow the change in topic without another word. And it works well enough; she sputters, throwing Clint a dark look.

“What? No!”

“Oh, come on, you were undressing him with your eyes and clenching your arms around your chest to make your tits look bigger. Which, by the way, is not necessary, babe.”

Darcy flips him off and Clint grins, going for the 'fake it till you make it' attitude he lived by while in the circus. He can do this, and he’ll be fine. He knows he has to talk to Phil, but he’s not going to make himself sick over it.

It’s not a game for Clint, but he doubts it is for Phil, either. He really can only hope it was a bad play of circumstances. At least Phil is better, and he looked sharp in yet another of his standard tailored suits, always the consummate professional. It makes Clint long for that one moment of Phil unguarded and vulnerable, clad in just a towel, and Phil in Clint’s own clothes, all soft and blurry at the edges.

Clint guesses this is a memory he can only cherish, and not expect to witness again. But until Phil comes back to Under the Big Top, alone, Clint is determined not to think about it too much. He has no idea how long he’ll manage to fake it, though.


It's really late when Phil finally manages to wrap up the case from hell and even contemplate leaving the office. He's so grateful it's Friday that he could cry; even more grateful that he's somehow finished the paperwork tonight and doesn't have to come in tomorrow to tie up loose ends. He is exhausted. The bomber from the end of last week had tied into a much larger home terrorism plot, and they've all been run ragged, no time for anything outside the office but chasing down leads. He hasn't even been able to go in to Clint's shop for coffee, and after four days of office sludge he's missing it sorely.

Thinking of Clint just starts an ache somewhere behind his sternum, a cringe of guilt for the last time he'd been in, when he'd forced himself to brush Clint off because he just hadn't had the time, damn it, to sit down and talk to him properly like he'd wanted to -- like he’d needed to badly, ever since their kiss; and he'd known that if he started talking, he might never stop. The look in Clint's eyes, though. It kept Phil up at nights, even when he was supposed to rest; the disappointment, the flash of hurt. Phil felt physically sick every time he thought about it. This was why he shouldn't get emotionally attached -- he only hurt the people around him when he had no choice but to throw himself into his job, to the exclusion of everything else.

And now that he can spare the time to go and talk to Clint, he has no idea whether he would be welcome at all. Fuck, it had been so wonderful that night, to have Clint that close, to feel his hands, his mouth on his, to know that, yeah, he wasn't alone in feeling these things. Now it feels like everything has turned to ashes before him.

He gets his stuff together and leaves the office finally, just gone nine p.m.; he's the only one still there on the floor. Steve, Natasha and Bucky are long gone, and even Peggy Carter, the new Assistant Director that had been drafted in this week for the case, had left. Phil heads down the stairs, distracting himself from the conundrum with the thought that he's not the only one in trouble where feelings are concerned -- after just two days, Steve is completely smitten with Agent Carter, who treats him like a puppy that's lost his way. It's extremely amusing to watch Steve bend over backwards to impress, and her smooth, composed rebuffs. He has an inkling she likes him, though, even if he couldn't really say what pointed to that conclusion. Poor Darcy; he's going to have to break the news to her gently.

Thoughts of Darcy naturally lead to thoughts of Clint, and Phil feels the levity drain right out of him. He trudges to his car and sits there for a long moment, debating the uselessness of going in to apologise. Still, he's going to have to sometime -- he's still got Clint's clothes, washed and folded neatly in a carrier bag in the trunk, and he's not the kind of asshole to just conveniently forget about them. And if he's going to end up going in at some point, it's probably better to get it over with as soon as possible and try to put it out of his mind. He ignores the voice in his head that tells him that it’s not going to be as easy to let Clint fade into the background as Phil thinks. For one thing, he thinks he might be addicted to the damn coffee, because he'd been feeling utterly miserable the past four days, something close to the shakes keeping him off-balance. And for another, his partner and the other team aren't actually stupid -- he knows that they know about the coffee, and he knows that Steve thinks he and Clint are an item, after Phil made the mistake of suggesting Under the Big Top as a rendezvous before the meeting. Then Steve had told Bucky, because those two are physically incapable of not telling each other every single thing that passes through their heads, and that's how Phil had found out that his tailor-made coffee was now a drink on the menu called 'The Agent'. He doesn't know if he feels more flattered or jealously possessive of his drink.

In the end, when he pulls out of the garage he turns in the direction of Under the Big Top, and tries to ignore the flutter in the pit of his belly. It's really late; there's absolutely no guarantee that Clint will still be there at all. The thought doesn't really help; instead, it only piles another layer of disappointment on top of the nervous anticipation. Jesus, but Clint is messing with his head something fierce. At this point Phil honestly doesn't know what would be better, for him and Clint to work through the situation they've found themselves in, or for them to give it up altogether, because his judgement has not been this severely compromised since he was a rookie still finding his feet.

He parks his car in the same spot as last week, when he'd given in to the urge and gone to the only place he felt truly comfortable. He makes sure to get the bag from the trunk, to use as an excuse if needs be. To his pleased surprise, when he gets there the place is still blazing with light that streams out through the high windows. Phil peeks inside, finding the shop much busier than he expected -- almost all the tables are full, a harassed-looking Darcy rushing around and picking up empties, while Clint is behind the coffee machine, face fixed in a frown and arms moving with the kind of precision that characterises the combat-trained professional -- or apparently someone with Clint's background, rare as it is. What is a true surprise, so much so that it makes him step back in shock, is the unmistakable figure of Pepper Potts behind the cash register, calmly and efficiently taking orders and payment and dispersing directions and change without the slightest pause. He's so thrown that he doesn’t move for the better part of five minutes, so long, in fact, that by the time he moves again the queue is almost gone and there are only one or two people left waiting. When he pushes in through the door, Ms. Potts is stepping out from behind the register and smiling kindly at Darcy, who is stammering her thanks, utterly star-struck. Clint, too, looks unspeakably relieved, offering Ms. Potts two huge coffees in a cardboard tray and waving away her offer to pay.

"It's the least I could do; thank you so much for your help. You saved our skins back there."

"My pleasure, Mr. Barton," Ms. Potts says, and Clint makes a face.

"Clint, please. Again, it's the least I could do. As far as I'm concerned, your money's no good here anymore, Ms. Potts, not as long as I own the place."

Pepper smiles charmingly when she replies, "That's really not necessary, Clint, but thank you. And it's Pepper."

For a timeless, charged moment, Phil feels a swooping sensation in his stomach, and his chest seizes painfully. The irrational desire to march over there and slip a proprietary arm around Clint's waist, pull him in against his side, is so powerful that the battle to wrestle it back leaves him weak, even more exhausted. What right does he have to do something like that, anyway? Clint would probably throw him out without letting him get a word in edgewise.

"I couldn't let the shop that provides myself and Mr. Stark with such excellent coffee flounder, really. Consider it an act of self-preservation," Ms. Potts adds now, giving them a last fond look and turning, eyes widening a little when she comes face to face with Phil. Phil wonders what the look on his face must be like, to put such an expression on hers.

"Agent Coulson, what a pleasant surprise," Ms. Potts covers neatly, obviously used to unexpected situations being sprung on her. Well, Stark is her boss.

Phil, with a monumental effort, pulls himself together, affecting the bland expression that gets him through the day. "Ms. Potts, good evening. Working late?"

"Yes. Tony has a project to finish, and you know how he gets."

Phil's lips twitch. Colonel Rhodes is the NSA's military liaison -- and by necessity also their Tony Stark liaison as well. Phil knows exactly what she means.

"I hope he doesn't keep you out too late," Phil says mildly, stepping away from the door. Ms. Potts wishes him a good evening with a sly, sideways look that, even though Phil will never say it out loud, she has lifted straight off her boss. Or Stark has stolen it from her, there's always that chance.

She slips past him and out the door, and Phil really has no option but to look up now, straight into Clint's shuttered eyes. Darcy is conspicuously making herself busy behind the counter, banging cups and plates slightly louder than necessary as she sets up the dishwasher.

"Hi," Phil says helplessly. Just because he's determined to see this through doesn't mean he knows what to say, what would be welcome--or not.

"Hi, Phil," Clint says, impeccably friendly yet palpably detached. Phil feels a chill take him, knows perfectly well it has nothing to do with the still-blasting A/C. "What can I do you for?"

Coffee hadn't really been at the front of Phil's mind, coming here, but if that's how Clint wants to play it...

"Actually, I came to return your--the clothes you let me borrow.” He wants to add that he’d like for them to talk, too, but he feels thrown, out of sorts. Clint had needed help, and Phil had had no idea, hadn’t been there for four days. He doesn’t want to be replaced in Clint’s life -- which is a ridiculous notion, but it makes his gut twist just thinking about it. "But I guess coffee would be nice, too."

“Oh. Thanks. What will it be?”

Phil takes a deep breath, the words coming out of his mouth before he can really think them through. He hasn’t been able to think many things through, when it comes to Clint. “Surprise me.”

Suddenly, there’s a smirk on Clint’s face, his eyes downcast, looking at his own hands, and Phil bites the inside of his lip, a heady rush of hope that maybe he hasn’t completely screwed this up. Clint gets to work, not saying anything as he mixes syrups and espresso shots together. Phil tries to follow the moves and check what Clint is putting in his coffee, but he finds himself staring at Clint’s hands, remembering the feel of them on his skin, and then he’s staring at Clint’s mouth, and - this is a train of thought he ought to stop before he embarrasses himself in front of a pretty full coffee shop.

“I thought - we need to talk, Clint.”

“Hmm.” Clint slides Phil’s coffee over the counter, finally meeting Phil’s eyes. “Bit busy.”

Phil nods. “I can see that. I’ll wait. Keep the change,” he says as he slides a five dollar bill towards Clint, turning to go sit at the only empty table. If he needs to wait until it’s time to close, he will. He’s got nowhere better to be.

It takes an hour and a half for the shop to empty. Phil spends it observing the seamless way Clint and Darcy work together, one of them always preparing the drinks while the other cleans tables. They share smiles and private jokes regularly as they work, making Phil long for a camaraderie like that--maybe even with Clint--even more than before.

It’s obvious that Clint is trying his hardest to ignore Phil’s presence, but isn’t very successful at it, stealing glances at Phil every so often, brushing past him after getting empties from a table. Darcy is better at it than Clint, going about her work like Phil isn’t there, sipping at his surprisingly bitter mocha slowly, wanting to make it last.

He still finishes it before the shop is empty, but neither Clint nor Darcy gather the empty cup. Phil toys with it, refusing to look at his phone, even when he feels it vibrating in his pocket. He’s going to have that talk with Clint, and work can wait.

“Go on, Darcy, I’ll close up.”

Darcy blinks at Clint, surprise showing on her face for just a moment.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I’m sure. Go on.”

Darcy throws Phil a look, still hesitating, like she’s worried Phil and Clint are going to end up throwing punches. But in the end she grabs her bag, pecks a kiss to Clint's cheek, and then she’s out of the door, giving Phil the smallest nod of acknowledgement. He’ll have to wait to tell her about Steve and Peggy, then.

Clint wipes down the coffee machine for another moment before he just stops, hands on the counter. “I’m surprised you waited.”

“I said I would. Was this a test?”

Clint clenches his jaw, throwing down the tea towel he’s holding and walking around the counter, closer to Phil. “Wasn’t a test, Phil.”

“Okay. I wanted to. I apologize for last time.”

“For what? Ignoring me, or ignoring what happened between us?”

Phil refuses to fidget or look away, even though the urge is strong. “Both.”

“Do you even like me?”

It would sound childish under any other circumstances, probably, but Clint sounds so earnest, actually asking instead of just throwing it out to be an ass. Phil stands up, steps closer, feeling like any words he could say would be inadequate.

“Yes, I do.” He sighs, looking down at his own hands for a moment. He knows he’s got to let it out now, or he never will. “Look, I'm sorry it went down like it did. I never meant to make you upset, or feel like I didn't care. Because I do, Clint; I do care. And I wanted to stop and talk to you properly. I just, I couldn't.

"Listen, you've got to understand, if we're, if you even still want to be doing this thing with me, you have to know that it's not about what I want. I don't have the luxury of doing what I want. I work for the NSA; when they say 'jump', I ask how high, and what velocity I should be aiming for, and incidentally, is something going to shoot me down when I do? Because that's what my job is. Last time, I shouldn't have even stopped by, I knew it wasn't going to go down well, I should have just not come in at all. But--I wanted to see you. Even if I didn't have the time to talk properly."

Clint is quiet for a long moment, digesting this. His eyes don't stray from Phil's; they're considering, digging into him, testing his sincerity. He lets Clint look as long as he likes, lets him see it all -- his regret, his hope, the vague despair of ever finding someone who understands, who likes him enough to put up with it for his sake.

The silence stretches; Clint is just standing there, and fuck, the look in his eyes, all that warmth and affection, Phil doesn't know what to do with it. It's so foreign that he honestly has no frame of reference for a reaction.The shop is peaceful around them, lights dim, and Phil waits, because that's what he's been doing all night--all week--waits for Clint to decide what it's going to be.

"So?" he says in the end, when the quiet gets unbearable, and it's either attack or retreat. "Do you--I mean, I know I fucked up. But do you think we could--"

His voice trails off when Clint sighs, tired, head hanging down. Phil's blood turns to icicles in his veins. But then Clint's reaching for his hand, drawing him across the floor back to the table, slumps into the chair next to the one Phil had been warming. His hand is callused and strong, fingers rough against Phil's, but warm, gentle.

"I think we could. I mean, I would like it very much if we could," Clint says, raising his head to catch Phil's eyes. "But I'll need you to--look. I'm going to have to ask you for something."

"Anything," Phil says immediately. "Anything I can give you, it's yours."

Clint nods, but it's not disappointment that lingers in his eyes; from where Phil's sitting, it looks a lot more like relief.

"I'm... not very good with unspoken boundaries," Clint says slowly, hesitantly, like he's finding the words here and now. "I just, I need to know that you're with me. I don't care about your job, or what you have to do for it. I just need to know that even when you can't see me, or you can't talk about it, or you just don't have the time to drop by, I need to trust that you're with me, Phil. That you and I, we're together. And if there ever comes a time that you don't want to be with me, you'll tell me. I don't--I can't handle you just distancing yourself until I have no idea what's going on anymore. I need you to talk to me. That's all I want. I'm not asking for any guarantees, but--"

Phil puts his fingers over the softness of Clint's mouth, fights not to shudder when Clint's breath tickles his skin. "I get it," Phil says, letting the smile that's been growing helplessly as Clint spoke creep across his mouth. "I get it, Clint. And yes. I'm with you. As much as I can, I'll be with you for as long as you'll have me."

Clint's lips stretch under his fingertips, then purse to press a kiss against them before pulling back. "I just need you to talk to me," he repeats plaintively, like he thinks he's asking for more than Phil can give. "You can't come over, that's fine. You have to work late, that's fine, too; call me up and tell me, I'll get it, I promise. Just as long as I know where I stand, I'm cool with that."

Phil can hardly believe his luck; he hadn't dared to hope that he could ever, that there could be someone who gets it, him, and wants him anyway. "I can do that," he says; too eagerly, he knows, but Clint doesn't laugh, he just smiles happily, and somehow it's better than anything Phil could have said, any promises he could have made. Joy rises inside him until he's giddy with it; he pushes off his chair, crowds into Clint's space and presses his mouth to Clint's, mobile lips pliant under his, no hint of hesitation, just calm, pleased acceptance. Phil scuttles even closer, Clint's body warm against his chest as he slips his hands around Clint's waist, the back of his head and tugs gently, slanting his head until their tongues tangle together between their lips; until Clint's exhaling harshly against him and pushing him back, not hard enough to break the kiss but with obvious intent. Phil settles back into his chair and Clint follows, sliding his legs over the outside of Phil's thighs and settling snugly into his lap with a grunt of triumph. Phil's arms lock automatically around him, keeping him in place as Clint's hands frame his face, tilt it back a little so Clint can lick into his mouth, tease his way inside. Phil can't even gather the wherewithal to think, let alone resist.

Clint makes this happy little moan at the back of his throat, and fuck; Phil's hands clench in the fabric of Clint's shirt, trying to draw him closer. He can feel Clint's cock hard and heavy against his stomach, and the jolt of pure need it sends through him startles him a little, makes him want to back off, try and clear his head. Clint lets him draw back just the tiniest bit, break the kiss and pant into Clint's mouth, Clint's breath hot against his spit-slick lips.

"I think it might be a good idea if we took this somewhere else," Phil manages to say, mind a tangle of relief and affection mingling with a fog of want that clouds his thoughts. Clint's thighs clench on his hips, clearly reluctant to let him go; Phil's world actually whitens a little at the feel of it, the thought of what's coming, of what Clint's legs would feel like wrapped about his hips as Phil slides inside him. His lungs lock; he can't breathe for how fucking much he wants that, wants Clint in his bed, in his space, all the time.

"You're probably right," Clint says roughly, pulling back until there's actual space between them, painful as it is for Phil to let him. He steals another kiss, fast and hard, full of teeth and need, and then pushes off him to stand, graceful and so steady that Phil feels the immediate desire to mess up that composure of his. Clint grins sharply, like he can see what Phil's thinking, like he's daring Phil to follow through. And he wants to, how he wants to. But he knows -- or at least he hopes he knows what's coming, and yeah, it's better to get four walls and a door between them and the world before the dam breaks.

When he doesn’t grab Clint and drag him back towards him, Clint swipes up the bag at Phil’s feet and grins dangerously.

“Let’s go.”


Clint wakes up to the feel of lips against his neck, moving slowly along his shoulder, followed by a cold nose, which makes him smile, hairs rising on his arms. His body feels heavy, sated, limbs tangled with Phil’s in the middle of his bed, covers thrown haphazardly on top of them.

It’s been a long night filled with conversation and sex - more sex than Clint has had in a long time. Phil is a surprisingly enthusiastic lover, at odds with his usual reserved behavior, not that Clint would complain for a second about it. They’ve only had a couple hours of sleep, but Clint is not unhappy to be awake right now, pressing back into Phil’s body with a satisfied sigh.


“Time’s it?”

“Some time past nine.”

“Hmmm.” Clint buries his face in the pillow, feeling Phil’s fingers resting on his stomach, just brushing the skin. “Think Darcy can handle the shop today. Do you have to go to work?”

Phil sighs softly, right against the top knot of Clint’s spine. “They can deal without me. Just finished a case, I can use the rest.”

Clint grins, turning in Phil’s arms to speak right against his lips, their noses brushing. “You assume there will be rest involved.”

Phil smiles, kissing Clint lightly. “How silly of me.”

Clint wiggles his eyebrows in answer, before sobering up. “Do you want coffee?”

“God, yes.”

Clint nods, kissing Phil again, just because he can, and he’s here, naked in Clint’s bed, in no rush to go anywhere. He rolls away, sheets rustling around him, and walks away from the bed naked. It’s warm enough that he doesn’t feel the need to put on anything as he pads through his apartment to the kitchen. He’s quick to put the coffee on, contemplating making some eggs and bacon as well. He decides not to as the coffee maker gurgles next to him, unwilling to spend more time outside the bedroom, or at least outside of Phil’s reach, than he has to. While the liquid drips, he gives Darcy a quick call, bringing her up to date and warning her that she's on her own today. The happy squeal from the headset near deafens him, but he grins, happy that she's happy for him. He doesn't even mind when she warns him she's gonna call if the shop turns into a madhouse later.

He just makes the one cup of coffee and walks back to the bedroom, only to stop dead in his tracks. Phil has barely moved, just pushed the covers down his legs, and he’s stroking his cock, looking straight at Clint like he’s doing it on purpose, which Clint doesn’t doubt. It’s surprising to think of Phil as a tease, but considering the charged smile on his face right now, there is no other way to describe it.

Clint very slowly puts the coffee mug down on the bedside table, flexing his fingers. “What are you doing?”

“I think it’s quite obvious,” Phil drawls, smirking.

Clint shakes his head, running his tongue over his top teeth as he considers his options; then he stalks over to the side of the bed, kneeling on the mattress and straddling Phil in one swift move, ass resting snugly against Phil’s cock, feeling the back of Phil's hand brushing his skin. Phil changes his grip, letting go of his erection to palm Clint’s ass, and Clint rocks back, licking his lips.

“Well, it’s a good thing that the coffee is way too hot to be drinkable right now.”

"Is that a fact," Phil says, voice rich with amusement and fondness, and god, Clint bends down and kisses him, hard and deep, because he can't not, after everything they've gone through to end up together in his bed, knowing that Phil is here to stay for as long as he possibly can. He wasn't lying when he told Phil that he didn't care about what his job demanded of him; knowing that Phil is his, because he wants to be, because he wants Clint in his life and he'll do anything he can to keep him there -- it's enough. More than enough. He opens his mouth and sucks Phil's tongue inside, moans a little as Phil's hands spread him open and Phil's cock rubs against his entrance, still slick and open from the night before. He tries to lower himself down onto it, wanting Phil inside so bad, wanting to feel that heat and pressure and fullness again, but Phil's hands have an iron grip on his hips and keep him in place no matter how hard he tries.

"Condom; lube," Phil gasps into his mouth, biting down on his lower lip as his hips surge up helplessly yet too shallow to breach him.

"Goddamn it," Clint complains, because he's just fine here, thanks, but Phil won't let him budge, and after a few moments of fruitless attempts to force Phil's hand Clint relents, groping blindly across the nightstand and narrowly avoiding scalding himself before his fingers close around the cool tube and one of the small packs piled on top. He sits back and shoves the condom in Phil's hand, keeping hold of the lube, wanting to see now that Phil has made him slow down. He flicks the top open and squirts a dollop into his hand while Phil rolls the condom on. Just as he goes to coat Phil again, Phil drags his fingers through the wetness and reaches between his legs, a single digit filling him easily as Clint's fingers curl around Phil's cock again. He doesn't think he'll ever get used to the gorgeous, sensuous weight of it across his palm, a little longer than his if not quite as thick. Phil lets out a needy groan, hips jerking again, shoving his cock through Clint's fist, delicious. Another finger joins the first inside, slipping in with no resistance whatsoever; they curl and press, and fuck, he'd known from the start that Phil was as competent as they come, but it still surprises him, the sheer skill Phil possesses to zero in precisely on that place inside him that makes him lose all coherent thought.

"Mngh," he manages, squeezing possibly a little harder than he'd intended, because Phil's hips jerk again, slippery and insistent. "Come on, I'm ready," Clint--all right, whines, he's not proud of it, he just fucking needs this, it's been too long since he's been with someone so damn intuitive, that makes it look easy to be this good. He feels Phil smirk against his mouth, feels the firmness of Phil's lips as they nip at his, and then yes, finally, Phil's fingers slip out and the blunt, wide head of his cock replaces them. Phil pushes a little, just enough pressure to open him up and nudge inside.

He knows Phil is trying to be careful, keep the easy pace, let Clint get used to this -- but Clint has never been especially patient, not when it comes to getting what he wants, and right now what he wants is to be spread open and taken, to feel Phil as deep inside him as he'll go. He cants his hips, shifts backwards and down, and yeah, yeah, that's what he's talking about. The drag of friction as Phil jerks up into him is fucking amazing; he tightens down onto it, and wow, yes.

"Jesus," Phil grunts, hands clenching onto his hips, fingers digging in deliciously until Clint knows they'll mark him, ten fingerprint bruises darkening his skin. The thought makes his cock jerk so hard that Phil definitely notices. Phil arches a brow but doesn't ask, merely shifts one hand to play with the head, strokes it easily, grip nowhere as firm as Clint wishes it was.

Hands splayed on Phil’s chest, Clint tips his head back, rocking onto Phil as slowly as he can, wanting the feeling to last for as long as possible. He knows perfectly well it's not gonna happen, because fuck, Phil feels way too good, and Clint already wants to move faster, go deeper. It’s almost too much of a conflict, wanting so many things at once while his head is spinning with sensations, making him growl with frustration, as Phil’s hand slips down his thigh.

“C’mere, come on,” Clint pants, pulling at Phil’s arms until he’s sitting up, grip shifting to Clint's ass, the change in position pushing him even deeper inside Clint, who can only moan his bliss into Phil’s mouth. They kiss slowly, following the rhythm of their hips, something lazy and unhurried, just like a Sunday morning with the sun filtering through the curtains, the smell of coffee and sex permeating the air. Every time they move, Clint’s cock brushes against Phil’s stomach, the barest of friction that is enough to drive Clint crazy. “Fuck, fuck fuck, Phil.”

Phil trails kisses along Clint’s jaw, wrapping a hand around Clint’s cock properly this time, enough to make his whole body jerk again, sensitive to every one of Phil’s touches. Clint digs blunt nails in Phil’s shoulder as they rock together, his other hand gripping the back of Phil’s head.

Then, suddenly -- which is not to say that Clint doesn't appreciate it, because fuck, does he ever -- Phil shifts them, tips Clint back onto the bed, settles between his legs to fuck him slow and deep, eyes roaming over Clint’s face, like he can’t get enough of watching him lose control. And fuck if Clint doesn’t; his blood is singing, boiling with desperation in his veins, sending lightning flashes of spine-melting pleasure all the way through his body. He wraps his legs around Phil’s waist to get him deeper, pushes his hips off the bed and moans wantonly; Phil’s cock inside him is stretching him wide, making him feel perfectly, blissfully full, on the verge of coming already, clenching his muscles around it.

“Fuck, Clint, you feel so good,” Phil says in a broken whisper, his eyes too intense for Clint to take. He lets his eyelids flutter shut, holding on as Phil leans up on an elbow and grabs Clint’s cock again, pulling him off in earnest now, the last of the lazy feeling melting in the heat of the sun, replaced with an urgency that makes Clint arch his back, hands fisted in the bed sheets.

"That's it," Phil rasps in his ear, voice almost gone, hitching with need. "That's it, Clint, I've got you, come on, yeah, I can feel how close you are, fuck, you feel so good around me, so slick and tight. Come for me, now," he snaps, demands, and Clint's eyes roll into the back of his head, squeezing shut as his mouth falls open and his moans rend the air, so loud, fuck, Clint has never been this loud during sex, but there's something about Phil that demands it, the loss of control, allowing Phil to see, know, exactly what he's doing to him.

Phil's teeth sink into his lip when Phil kisses him, bites into his mouth, swallows down the noise and fucks him through it, fast and deep, sparking off aftershocks up and down his spine, his thighs clenching where they curl around Phil's waist, holding him close. Then Phil's hips stutter, his rhythm fails; he shoves himself inside once, twice, and freezes. Clint wishes he could feel Phil come inside, wishes there was nothing between them but a thin layer of slick, but they're both nothing if not careful, and it's something to look forward to, getting their all-clears together and the celebration that would follow.

For now he cherishes the way Phil sags over him, spent, utterly boneless as he drapes himself all over Clint, heavy and solid on top of him, face tucked into Clint's damp neck. Clint trails his fingers over Phil's back, enjoying the minute shivers they cause in their wake, letting his thighs uncurl from around Phil and fall to the side, still cradling his body. Phil hums his contentment into his skin, pressing languid, slow kisses everywhere he can reach. His cock slips out after a moment; fuck, Clint feels that. He fights not to wince; it's been a long night. And maybe the next round he's going to suggest they switch; one, because otherwise he might not be able to sit properly for a couple of days, and two, because the thought of fucking Phil is making his cock damnably eager to perk up again in anticipation, so much so that Clint whimpers a little with the sting.

Phil's head lifts at that, which makes Clint regret it instantly.

"You okay?" Phil says, looking at him closely, studying his face.

"Perfect," Clint drawls with a rumble, because fuck, he is. He's got everything he needs right here, as long as Phil doesn't even think about leaving the bed. "You?"

Phil looks honestly surprised at that, like the thought that Clint might be concerned is a foreign concept. "Never felt better in my life," he says with this small, honest smile radiating warmth that hits Clint right in the chest, making it clench with a strange mix of tenderness and possessiveness.

They reshuffle a little after that, get rid of the condom, and Phil finally gets to have his coffee (half of which Clint steals, because, host's prerogative -- and also he can't be bothered to go fetch some for himself, considering it would mean leaving the bed-full of Phil behind, which is not a plan he is ever going to be happy with),

Phil's phone rings then, and he shoots Clint an apologetic look as he goes to answer it. Clint, feeling well-fucked and thus magnanimous, waves his permission at him. And then proceeds to sprawl all-out over the sheets and drift, listening to Phil's familiar, comforting voice get progressively more vexed. He grins at the ceiling, imagining the ass-kicking imminent in someone's future. It's a surprisingly satisfying thought, especially when it applies to the rest of his life from this moment on.



“You’ll see, their coffee is amazing. Also, we get a discount.”

Bucky raises an eyebrow at Steve’s words. “We do?”

“If you know Phil, you get a discount.” Steve looks entirely too pleased about that, and Phil manages to restrain himself from clocking him round the head, even though he’d definitely deserve it.

Since this whole thing with Clint started, though, Phil has mellowed out enough to smile in the office, even cracking jokes from time to time. Dry, sarcastic jokes, but still, they’d made Steve look so surprised he’d almost fallen out of his chair once.

“Why do we get a discount if we know Phil?”

“Because he gets extra favors.”

“Rogers, if you don’t shut up now, you’ll be filling paperwork for the next month.”

Thankfully, the conversation stops when they get to Under the Big Top, walking into the warm shop that smells exquisitely of chocolate and almonds today. Phil takes the lead without even thinking about it, Steve and Bucky falling in step behind him.

It’s only been a few hours since Phil saw Clint off, but he still can't get over the rush of giddiness coursing through his veins when Clint smiles at him as he walks inside the coffee shop.

“What kind of favors?”

His favors.”

Phil is pretty sure that Steve knows perfectly well he can hear their whispers, and he can also imagine him pointing discreetly at Clint, but he only rolls his eyes and smiles at Clint, who's leaning against the counter.

“Hello, Agent Coulson. Agent Rogers,” Clint drawls, damn it, he knows what that tone does to Phil.

“Hi, Clint!” Phil grins helplessly at Steve’s enthusiastic greeting, and at Darcy suddenly stepping out of the kitchen. The girl hasn’t lost hope, even after serving Steve and Peggy during their first date. “Hey, Darcy. This is Agent Barnes. Just transferred from Quantico.”

Darcy surges forward, all smiles and bouncing breasts, making Phil want to burst out laughing. Fair enough, he works with some good-looking young men; he’s glad Clint seems to only have eyes for him.

“Usual, Agent Coulson?” Clint asks.

“Please.” They share a smile, a secret in their eyes as Darcy asks with her best flirty wink what Steve and Bucky want. While Clint and Darcy work away at the drinks, Phil listens to some more whispering under the hiss of the coffee machine.

"...All for Peggy, you know that, Rogers, but passing on that? The woman has scrambled your brains, pal!"

"God, Bucky, shut up! I give you my blessing, just stop talking so loud!"

"Jesus, all right, don't get your panties in a twist. I'm not making the same mistake as you, that's for sure. D'you think she might like to go dancing?"

Steve elbows Bucky in the ribs; Bucky play-winces, though Phil knows the strength of that elbow and he's sure Bucky's ribs will be tender for the rest of the day. Clint is watching them through narrowed eyes, especially Bucky. Phil knows how protective he is of Darcy; he'll have to talk to him about not killing Barnes before he gets to know him.

"Here y'are, gents," Darcy says, smiling saucily. Phil watches Bucky's eyes widen a little and a smirk curl his mouth. Damn, but they would make a fine-looking couple. Clint hands Phil his coffee, and he’s quick to shuffle to a table, letting the youngsters settle the bill.

He sits at his favorite spot near the window, and keeps his eyes on Steve and Bucky for just a moment before Clint joins him, what Phil knows is a cappuccino in his hands.

“Is this one going to break her heart, too?”

“I couldn’t say. He's Steve's best friend, though, and if he does, it'll never be on purpose.”

Clint makes a face. “Well, you can tell him that if he does the same thing Steve did, I’ll break his legs.”

“You cannot tell me these things, I’ll have to arrest you.”

“You know I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Clint murmurs, sliding his knee against Phil's under the table. Phil could try to stop the shiver, or the smile that Clint's low, rumbling voice sends to his face, but it's just too much effort, so he doesn't bother.

Instead, he slides a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and takes out an envelope, handing it over to Clint without comment. Clint takes it, a question clear in his eyes, and sets down his cup so he can rip the flap open. He takes out the piece of paper inside, expression quickly flitting through shock, pleased surprise, and a quiet happiness that Phil will never, ever, even if he lives to be a hundred, get tired of putting on his face.

"Not that I'm ungrateful, because I'm not, I don't want you to think that I don't appreciate this, but what's the occasion?" Clint asks, eyes flitting quickly from the paper to Phil's face and back.

A few months ago, Phil would have deflected without answering. A year ago, he wouldn't have even bothered hearing the question.

Now, though, he looks back and lets Clint see what's in his eyes, what he's thinking -- because Clint has earned it. A whole year of sticking with Phil, through cases and threats and cancelled dinners and a visit from Phil's mother -- that is dedication.

"It'll come to you, if you think hard enough," he says, because while, yes, all of that is true, it's just not in his nature to lay his heart out on the table for others to see. Clint scowls, glaring a little -- he hates it when Phil does that. But he's also never backed down from a challenge in his life, and the fact of the matter is, Phil loves the way his eyes narrow, the way the air around him seems to crackle with energy when he gets like this. Clint stares at the paper; Phil can almost see him thinking.

“This is a pretty big deal, Phil. At least give me a clue.”

“It’s not that big a deal.”

“Excuse me, I’ll be the one to decide how much of a big deal getting a membership to an archery club is to me.”

Clint is getting aggravated, in that honestly endearing way that makes Phil smile. It’s also making Phil want to just tell Clint, but he resists, licking his lips.

“It’s for an anniversary. Do you like it?”

“If I didn’t know already just how much you hate being groped in public, I’d show you exactly how much I do.”

Phil’s smile grows even wider. If it wasn’t for Steve and Bucky, he’d almost challenge that. He wants to challenge it so much more when Clint suddenly looks up from the paper, eyes bright.

“Oh, an anniversary! Is it today, really?”

“21st of April, isn’t it?”

Clint opens his mouth, looking like he’s trying to manage too many thoughts at once.



“Take out the small blackboard, we're discounting everything this week.”

“We...are? Why?”

Clint smiles. “Because Under the Big Top is a year old.”

Darcy's mouth makes an 'O' of surprise and she nods, bending down to rummage under the counter to find the board in question. Steve rolls his eyes as Bucky drapes himself over the counter and offers to help -- by the sound of it, with more than the search.

Phil sees none of that, however, because his eyes are locked on Clint's smiling ones, the feeling that shines from them bathing him in warmth.

"I didn't get you anything," Clint says, and Phil's lips twitch.

"You got me plenty," he says, which, yes, he is quite aware just how ridiculously sappy the sentiment is. Doesn't make it any less true, though. Clint grins, then, laughs at him for it, but takes his hand anyway, tangles their fingers together, keeps hold of them while he drinks his coffee, makes fun of Bucky's increasingly salacious attempts to ask Darcy out, rolls his eyes at Steve's face when Peggy comes in.

And yes, okay. This, Phil can do.